What made 800 people vote BNP in Burnley?

John-Paul Flintoff reports, for the Financial Times magazine

Barely ten yards apart, on either side of the town hall steps, two crowds scream at each other through loud-hailers.

The one on the left, mostly dressed in leisurewear and waving flags, represents the British National Party, which secured its greatest-ever success last month here in Burnley, in England’s northwest. Tonight, eight BNP councillors will arrive for their first council meeting, and their supporters have come to cheer.

The crowd on the right, bearing placards describing the BNP as fascists, will boo.

Chris Jackson, the BNP’s north-west regional organiser, expects the Anti-Nazi League to try more than that.

With chest puffed out – as if straining against an invisible leash – Jackson complains to police officers about one particular member who has strayed beyond the ANL’s crowd barriers. Pointing to this woman, muttering urgently into her mobile phone, he says: “It’s Julie. She’s going to give it the big ‘un.”

What exactly does he mean?

“She accosted [BNP councillor] Carol Hughes last year. I’ve told ‘em to watch her.”

Two other tribes are present this evening: a loose confederacy of reporters, photographers and camera crews, gripped by the BNP’s electoral success, not only in Burnley but also in several other English towns, and police officers, many of them on horseback. And that’s pretty well everyone – apart from one elderly man in a pinstriped suit, wandering round lost. This turns out to be a former Labour councillor who lost his seat to the BNP last year. He’s come to watch tonight’s meeting, but with all this security it’s unclear whether he will be allowed in. At 6.45pm, he starts walking up the steps of the town hall – and just as he reaches the top the shouting gets louder than ever. The BNP councillors have arrived.

It’s one thing to vote for the BNP, as 8,000 people did in Burnley, another to stand for election yourself. To find out why anyone would do that, I’ve come to spend time with Len Starr, in the week or so after his election.

Our first meeting takes place in his lounge, where I watch Starr submit to an interview with the Stoke Sentinel – a paper from another town, like Burnley now blessed with a BNP presence on its council. The Sentinel’s young reporter, Iain Burchell, clears his throat, wags his pen and says: “I’ve got to ask, even though I know you’ll say no – but are you a racist?”

Starr, 56, a former sergeant with the British army, drums his fingers gently on the arm of his chair. He wears a short-sleeved shirt with a dark tie, gleaming shoes, a tidy beard and spectacles which – that being the way with spectacles – lend an air of some intelligence. He’s been expecting this question.

“No, I’m not racist. People in this town are not racist, but they have a problem with race. Money has been going into one area in town, and that is a problem. It would be wrong if that area was all white, or all black, or whatever. Anything to do with race is difficult because of the laws around that. But we try to deal with issues, if we feel people are dealt with differently because of race.”

Starr lives in Padiham, five miles from Burnley’s centre, above the general store run by his wife, Jill. It’s the kind of place you’ll have seen on TV, in gentle BBC sitcoms of the 1970s, with signs outside promoting ice cream and the local paper, jars of sweets in the window – and few customers from ethnic minorities. “You maybe get the odd Asian passer-by,” Jill concedes. “But no one actually living in Padiham. I don’t know any Asians… Strange, isn’t it?”

Starr says that he left grammar school with just one O-level, to the horror of his parents, and drifted from one clerical job to another. He drank a lot, and by his early 20s he weighed 15 stone; a considerable weight for a man of 5’8”. Aged 23, he was hit by a car and – unable to earn a living immediately afterwards – moved back in to live with his parents. “I realised I had to do something,” he recalls. So he joined the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, went on an electronics course, and learned all about missiles. He also married, and had two children. The army took them to northern Ireland, Germany and Kuwait – where Len learned sufficient Arabic to haggle in shops – but when the children reached school age, he quit so that they could settle down.

Their daughter Sabina got into the prestigious Chetham’s School of Music, in Manchester. He could hardly have been more proud. “It’s awe-inspiring, the sound they produce. I went along to watch. I couldn’t see how she would manage, but she did.” Is she a professional musician? “You shouldn’t ask that question. She sells computers.” Is this a sore point? “Extremely.” (Their son is a motor mechanic.)

Starr too, as has already been noted, disappointed his parents. They were loyal Conservatives, and this provided the opportunity for young Len to play a practical joke at their expense. “I was in the army,” he remembers, “so my dad had a proxy vote for me. Just for a laugh, I asked him to vote Labour.” As intended, his father was mortified. Attentive readers will note that Starr’s joke, like the BNP, manages to combine cruelty with a cavalier attitude towards democracy; and is also not very funny.

The fascist tradition, in Britain, is excellent: we don’t like it, and don’t vote for it. In the late 1930s Oswald Moseley’s blackshirts made a bit of noise, and the National Front hit the headlines in the 1970s. But parties of the far-right – unlike their counterparts in continental Europe – have won minimal support from British voters. They’re usually too busy fighting among themselves.

The BNP was founded in 1982, by John Tyndall, a former leader of the National Front. In September 1999, after 17 years in charge, Tyndall was replaced as British National Party leader by Nick Griffin, a Cambridge University law graduate. Andy Kenyon, a Burnley man who joined the BNP in 1983, reckons that Tyndall had “a bit too much of the National Front in him… The NF, they’re just a bit of a rabble.” Coming from a man who tells me, apropos of nothing, that the wife of Britain’s prime minister has “a funny mouth… wants a fist in it”, this would suggest that the NF is an exceedingly violent mob indeed.

It has become a commonplace, since Griffin was elected leader, to describe him as the “acceptable” face of the British far right. Comparisons have been made with other personable – or well dressed – leaders of the European far right, such as the Austrian Jorg Haider and the late Dutchman, Pym Fortuyn. But that sits uneasily with the facts. Griffin has promoted race hatred for nearly 30 years, since joining the National Front aged 15. In 1997, he said the BNP should not try to appeal to “middle-class notions of respectability… It is more important to control the streets of a city than its council chambers.” In 1998, he received a two-year suspended sentence after conviction for distributing material likely to incite racial violence. In 1999, the year he took over as leader, a former BNP member set out to reduce London’s gay, black and Asian communities by blowing up nail bombs in Soho, Brixton and the East End. After this year’s elections, Griffin restated the BNP’s ultimate aim for an all-white Britain – but told a local newspaper that Asians in Burnley had nothing to fear.

Sitting between hills to the west of the Pennines, Burnley is much like many other former cotton towns in Lancashire. Like Preston, for instance, where my father was born, and his father before him: if things had turned out differently, I could have been a Burnley man myself. The first immigrants, so they say, knew little about the town but came here because they read “Burnley” on looms exported to the country of their birth. Over the years, they were joined by others, mostly from Bangladesh and Pakistan, who naturally moved into the same districts. Today, ethnic minorities account for 7,400 out of Burnley’s total population of 89,500 people. Like immigrants everywhere, they took jobs that nobody else wanted, and worked anti-social hours. For reasons of language and religion they mixed mainly with their own. But this alone can’t explain why Burnley’s immigrants never integrated to the same degree as counterparts in other towns. White and ethnic-minority communities led parallel lives for years, largely untouched by each other – until race riots broke out in 2001, making it clear that this was not a good thing.

Britain’s mainstream parties endorse multiculturalism, but in recent years that position has come under fierce pressure: the popular press has become increasingly obsessed with immigrants and asylum seekers – and that’s presumably why so many citizens of Burnley – which has no greater proportion of ethnic minority citizens than Britain as a whole – turned away from the political centre.

Simon Bennett, the BNP’s area spokesman, combs his greased hair forward in a short fringe, like the stereotypical British football hooligan; but his outbursts are disarmingly mild (“crikey!”) and in discussion he affects a rhetorical style that could be described as extremely reasonable if that were not a contradiction in terms. One favoured technique is to tell you things that others say about the BNP, plainly more monstrous than the reality – lending you to conclude that the poor fellows have been wronged, and aren’t perhaps so bad after all. Sometimes there really is some ambiguity. In January, the BNP joined other parties in laying a wreath commemorating the Holocaust. This gesture, by no means ordinarily to be expected of neo-fascists, nevertheless failed to win universal praise. Indeed, the wreath was removed by political opponents, who accused the BNP of hijacking the memorial. Who was right?

To explain why people voted BNP, Bennett drives me to two districts that he believes to be starkly contrasted. In Daneshouse, we don’t get out of the car, but he slows down enough for me to see the many people dressed in traditional outfits of the Indian sub-continent. “In 1991, this place was 44 per cent Asian. Now it’s 75 per cent. That’s quite a rapid growth.” He points out houses that have been sandblasted, terraces fitted with new front doors, and metal railings fixed to low walls to stop people sitting on them and intimidating residents. “You see what they’ve spent here?”

Next, he takes me to Burnley Wood, where children – mostly white – play on lumpy verges where till recently there were whole terraces of houses. We stop at the junction of Kirkgate and May Street, beside the high fences of demolition workers. “That’s it,” he says, pointing to the doomed house where he used to live. “My parents told me to stick my money into a house. I chose Burnley Wood, relatively near the town centre. I paid £8,000 in 1988. But it started to decline in 1991 and I was trapped in negative equity. The council bought it off me in February this year, for £10,000. That sounds great – two grand profit – but it’s not, because you’re stuck with the house for ten years, and you can’t move in with your girlfriend.”

It is not necessary to support the BNP to agree that what happened to Bennett, and to his neighbours, is sad. But the BNP says these houses did not need to be flattened. “The alternative is to spend money on Burnley Wood, like they did in Daneshouse.” Not everybody agrees, of which more later.

As we drive off, Bennett notices smoke rising from his ruined terrace. “I don’t believe it! They’ve set fire to one of the houses.” He turns into an alleyway between rows of houses. A group of children, aged between eight and 13, look up, startled. But if they’re guilty of arson, they’re remarkably cool: they don’t run away, nor even bother to watch as Bennett phones the fire brigade and gives his old postcode. (The last two letters, funnily enough, are NF.)

Of course, it’s impossible to get a sense of the place from one brisk tour by car. Over the next week, I revisit both districts several times on foot. Before I go, I also speak to the council officer in charge of redevelopment. Mike Cook tells me that, for Burnley to attract funding, the council must make a case to central government, or to Brussels. “The allocation is made on need, demonstrable need. Every ward except one, in Burnley, is above the national average for deprivation. Some are in the top ten per cent most deprived wards in the country. But Daneshouse is in the top one per cent. We have tried to get that across. We’ve pushed magazines through people’s doors, and worked with the local paper. But it’s not getting through.”

At dusk, in Daneshouse – sometimes described as a “no-go zone” for white people – I find brown-skinned boys wearing shalwar kameez playing soccer with white boys in jeans and T-shirts. A restaurant called Taste of Kashmir advertises pizza, burgers, fish and chips, kebabs and southern fried chicken, but no curry; which should conform to the BNP’s lofty standards of assimilation.

“There are a lot of English people living round here,” says Raj Mohammad, standing in a shop with his hands full of vegetables. “And we know each other very well. On my street, I’m the only Asian. I have been here 20 years. When I go away, I leave my house keys with English people.”

We chat for a while, then Mohammad takes me to his mosque, where worshippers greet the appearance of a stranger – me – with a mixture of puzzlement and scowls. One who smiles is the imam, to whom I am tentatively introduced by my friend from the shop; but I notice that Raj Mohammad looks uncomfortable, perhaps regretting that he has brought me here, and soon slips away with his bags of shopping.

While others put on their shoes and leave, one man lingers, eager to speak to a reporter with a notebook. He’s in his late 60s, has milky eyes and a knitted hat set at a jaunty angle. Mohammad Golzar has been in Britain for nearly four decades but speaks English with a strong Pakistani accent and has a gulping tic which makes it hard for me to follow what he says with such urgency. What I do learn, after writing down many details about his daughters’ impressive educational achievements, is this: “You must live and let live.” Also this: “Bloody fighting between white and black… There is no problem except with the BNP.”

In Burnley Wood, when I visit it again, the streets are largely empty. In May Street, a demolition man swings his pickaxe at the windows of number 45. I ask how it feels to tear apart somebody’s home. I’m expecting something soulful, but he says: “It’s alright.” After some thought, he adds: “Quite exciting, really.” And perhaps there’s nothing to be soulful about. Labour councillor Colette Bailey denies that Burnley Wood is a horrible place to live, but says people want more space than these poky houses offer. “Look, there isn’t even room for a car on both sides of the street.”

At number 39, a fire rages in the front room. “We have to burn it,” the same demolition man explains. “Bits of joists, shit like that. All the stuff that’s no good for selling.” Is it possible that the fire Bennett spotted, on my earlier trip, was also started by demolition workers? This would certainly explain why the children he blamed did not run away; and suggests that young people in Burnley Wood are perhaps not as disaffected and unruly as worriers believe.

After all, despite its real problems, it wasn’t Burnley Wood but the more affluent suburbs that returned BNP councillors. One resident, who’s lived in Burnley Wood for 76 years, tells me: “Those swanky areas that voted for the BNP are places where people think they are somebody, if you know what I mean. They think that if their councillor is BNP then none of the ethnic minorities will come to live in their area.” This appalls her: “Burnley’s indigenous population used to welcome people from Bangladesh and Pakistan.”

The BNP, it must be said, does not welcome them. “They say there should be bridges between the communities,” Starr tells me, “but who builds the bridge? Who pays for it? And who has to walk over it? Muslim women rarely meet white men. They’d be lucky to meet white women. So you end up with young Asian men running around like Jack-the-Lad with white girls, but not the other way round, and that causes problems.”

Starr’s boss, as it happens, is a woman of Asian origin. (As well as helping in the shop, Starr works for a transport company.) What does she think about him standing for the BNP? “I haven’t a clue, because she’s on holiday at the moment. She’s missed the whole election.”

Burnley Wood One Stop Shop is an all-purpose community centre with IT facilities, a kitchen, a creche, advice surgeries, health talks and Tai Chi lessons. Four times a year, it hosts ethnic-minority women from Daneshouse for a cross-cultural lunch (they return the favour just as often). This cornerstone of community cohesion – a policy enshrined in official reports into the riots of 2001 – is “unbelievably” popular, according to one woman involved and could recently be glimpsed on the BBC in the trailer for a new programme, Voices, which started this week.

This afternoon, councillor Bailey has set up a model of Burnley Wood at the One Stop Shop, using Lego blocks, to show residents what their district will look like after redevelopment. She wants them to decide for themselves where new facilities should be located. But although she states this clearly, several times, people seem convinced that she’s imposing her own solutions. Taking a deep breath, she says: “As a councillor, I need to put your views forward, so please tell me how you want it. This building is definitely coming. If we don’t do anything, it will go there.”

“That’s typical of councillors,” says one resident. “Always telling us what to do.”

“It’s not me,” says Bailey, “it’s the government.”

“Well… whoever.”

As this suggests, a councillor’s job can be thankless. It’s also badly paid. In Burnley, councillors get an annual allowance of £1,292 a year. (In nearby Oldham, the figure is £7,720.) As Len Starr puts it himself – with delicious irony – this could negatively affect the calibre of candidates for election.

One afternoon, nearly a week after the election, I’m talking with him in his lounge when Jill appears at the door. She says that there’s a man downstairs waiting to speak to Len. So he leaves the room, returning a few minutes later to tell me that the man has brought him his first task as councillor: a query relating to the Passport Office. He looks chuffed. Would he also welcome problems from non-white residents? “There aren’t many in this area. But if they voted for me – or even if they didn’t – I’d try to help.”

Over the following week, Starr attends meetings of Padiham council and Hapton parish council, and goes to the formal investiture of Burnley’s new mayor. And on the afternoon before the council meeting at town hall, he goes for training at the town hall – on how, among other things, to put forward a motion. “God knows how many hours I’ve taken on.”

The BNP councillors also met during the week to appoint Starr as leader, and to decide who should sit on which committee. “There was a form to fill out,” Starr says. “A list of the committees, with space for councillors’ names alongside, and the party’s overall entitlement.” (Parties with the most council seats take a proportionate share of the jobs on committees. The BNP has eight, out of 44. Labour has 23.) The BNP is also entitled to nominate committee chairmen. “We have only nominated for vice-chair,” says Starr, “not for chair, because (a) we don’t think they will give us that, and (b) we don’t think we have the experience.”

The only committee not put together on this basis is the council’s executive. In theory, the BNP is entitled to two seats on the executive: that’s what the Liberals had when they were the official opposition. “It’s a lose-lose situation, for Labour,” says Bennett. “We expect they won’t allow us on the executive, which shows contempt for democracy. If they do let us on, then that shows they can work with us after all.” Over the past year, he claims, political opponents have “forgotten” to send certain invitations to BNP councillors; organised meetings at times inconvenient to them; and introduced a motion against racism in football, “just to get us to vote against it”. On the evening before the council meeting, Starr still has no idea whether Labour will invite the BNP on to the executive. “People are telling us to have an up-front protest about it, but we are going to have egg on our face if we do that and they give us a place.” What will he do? “I guess I’m going to have to react to their decision when we get there.”

Before I came to Burnley, I took a pretty dim view of the BNP. They may not be building gas chambers, as their opponents sometimes seem to suggest, but their policies are deeply unpleasant: an opportunistic mix, based on envy and fear, that takes no account of the more generous aspirations of the British. If they’re no worse than that, they’re bad enough. Spending time with Starr and his colleagues has done nothing to change my mind. But I didn’t expect him to take his duties so seriously. I can’t help looking forward to his speech at the council.

At 6.45pm, as the BNP cars pull up outside the town hall – a black Cadillac and an Alfa Romeo, neither of them made in England – everything happens at once. Flour bombs fly overhead, as ANL protesters charge downhill from wherever they’ve been hiding. Police horses skitter on tarmac. And BNP supporters rush towards the action, racing against the police and photographers.

To chants of “Scum! Scum! Scum!” from the ANL, Len Starr climbs out of the Cadillac. An egg flies toward him from the crowd behind the barriers and hits him hard on the chest – but doesn’t break till it hits the ground. Maureen Stowe, the BNP’s oldest councillor, plainly appalled by the vitriol directed towards her, drifts aimlessly into the middle of the road then gradually left, as if by remote control, and up the stairs. The youngest, Luke Smith, his jacket dusted with flour, follows. Swinging a fist towards the jeering ANL supporters, he roars: “Fuck you!”

The incident ends as quickly as it started. BNP supporters, pushed back behind the barriers, break into a fierce rendition of “Rule Britannia”, while officers march protesters across the street and handcuff them. One, a young woman, has blood running down the side of her face.

Inside, Stowe looks shaken. Somebody fetches her a glass of water. Starr finds a police officer, tells him he’s appalled by how “inept and pathetic” the policing has been: “Surely to God you’ve dealt with this kind of thing before.” Then everybody proceeds into the chamber and BNP councillors take their seats below the crowded press gallery, as an usher appears at the door and invites everybody to stand for the entrance of Burnley’s new mayor.

Much of what happens next, it’s fair to say, is of no interest to people outside Burnley. After the furious drama outside, democratic procedures are bound to be anti-climactic. But the mayor’s opening remarks, welcoming all members of the council as equals, democratically elected, contrast impressively with the ANL’s determination to scare off even those neo-fascists who put themselves up for election. Her voice is monotonous, she uses no loud-hailer or witty slogans, but her civic sentiments are admirable: to bind the BNP into democratic practice, and thus defuse them.

Throughout the meeting, Starr sits upright, fingers meshed as he watches speakers from the Labour and Liberal Democrat benches. Every so often, he helps himself to an Extra Strong Mint. When Labour’s Stuart Caddy is proposed for re-election as leader of the council, Starr – followed by the other BNP councillors – raises a hand to vote against him. But everyone else votes in favour, and Caddy is duly re-elected. Taking that as his cue, the usher distributes to party leaders a pre-printed list of Caddy’s executive committee: at a glance, Starr sees that the BNP has been excluded. And as the mayor gradually works through the various committees, there’s little else to encourage him. Each time he rises to nominate BNP councillors for vice-chair, the other parties vote together to frustrate him. After half an hour, less disciplined BNP councillors start to slouch in their seats, but Starr remains upright: the only hint that his mood has altered is that he munches more quickly through his peppery sweets.

Caddy has been fiercely criticised for losing so many seats to the BNP this year – for failing to remedy whatever it was that saw three elected last year. But he feels passionately that Burnley can overcome its troubles, as he makes clear in a speech at the end of the session. It’s a big moment, requiring a local councillor to address issues of national – and international – importance. “I want to stop once and for all the myths going around this town,” he begins. Then he reiterates what Cook told me before: that redevelopment funds come from central government, not the council, and are allocated according to demonstrable need, not by racial profiling. For good measure, Caddy notes that there are not “hundreds” of asylum seekers in Burnley, just 54.

It’s not the most polished speech, but somehow Caddy pulls it off, rising to the occasion by invoking a tradition of tolerance and absorption that cuts both ways: towards ethnic minorities, represented here by three non-white councillors who listen respectfully; but also towards the BNP, to bring them into conventional politics or marginalise them peacefully. In conclusion, only slightly compromised by sniggers from the BNP, he says: “I say this loud and clear. We will challenge racism and division wherever it occurs.” And the meeting ends.

© FT Magazine